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In researching this piece of writing I was drawn to a quotation of Sir Winston Churchill:“We shape our strategies and then they shape us”.
The quotation formed a useful analogy of the thoughts and subsequent life of Albert Schweitzer as I was able to see the link between his early thoughts and how they continued to shape his changing service to humanity. It was whilst serving in Africa as a Doctor that he gained his “insight” on the “Reverence For Life” principles.
I will begin with a brief outline of his life and thoughts followed by selected quotations that provide valuable insight into his life philosophy. I will then indicate the effect of his thinking and work on both religious and secular communities. Finally my invitation to you is to consider his legacy to us and whether you agree we rename his "Reverence For Life” principle the “Grand Unifying Theory for Humanity”.
A Brief Outline of His Life and Thought.
Albert Schweitzer was born in Alsace in Germany (later to be annexed to France) as the son of a Lutheran Pastor in what was predominantly a Catholic place at the time.
He showed extraordinary skill on the organ as a youngster and was taught by some of the Europe’s finest professionals. He was an acclaimed concert artist and speaker that provided his ongoing funding for his beloved African Hospital.
In between compulsory military service his early life was dominated by studies in music and academic research culminating in 1900 with Drs of Philosophy and Theology and an appointment as Professor of Theology. In 1903 he became Principal of the theological seminary of St Thomas in Srassburg. At that time in his life he recalls the delight in teaching the simple truths of the Bible to his students in the hope it would provide a safe refuge against life’s stormy weather.
Students in later life did thank him, stating their faith would not have survived the “cruel sea of doubt” of life experience had it not been so firmly secured.
His quest for truth was reflected in his published material at times contrary to conventional wisdom as he did not accept the Gospels were a collection only of Jesu’s sayings interwoven loosely with his life story. He contended the expectation of the Messiahic Jewish belief that the “End of the World” was imminent influenced profoundly Jesus’s earlier sayings.
In 1905 he read an article in a Paris Missionary Society that describing the desperate need for medical doctors in Africa in the region then known as the Congo. It was to shape the rest of his life as he decided to become a jungle Doctor much to the chagrin of friends and the academia at the time who put a fist in his heart so to speak arguing he could do more from his existing privileged position in society than to undertake such a rigorous long course of study. In 1913 as a qualified Doctor he departed for Lambarene with his wife (whom he had married the previous year) and who was of incalculable support in the Hospital and as a research assistance over the next 40 years.
His base remained at Lambarene for the reminder of his life except for internment during World War 1.
However it was the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 that triggered within him a change of heart as he abandoned his nearly completed work for publication on St Paul to return to the Philosophy of Civilisation. His writings in this book contain his famous Insight” on the "Reverence for Life” principle.
It is difficult to describe what is meant in a few sentences but his theory acknowledges the reality of our own conscious will to live and all that is around us. Reverence for Life is the end result of a fusing ethical principles within our conscious will to live and hence world and life affirmation. It is the spiritual act in which one ceases to live unreflectively but adopts a reverence for all life in order to raise it true value. Its aim is to create values, and to realise progress of different kinds, which shall serve the material, spiritual and ethical development of mankind.
He had in effect won through to the “peace that passeth all understanding” and henceforth his own life was shaped by the underlying principles of his theory.
His achievements were recognised in 1952 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and later he formed collaborations with the leaders at that time in history including Bertrand Russell and John F Kennedy.
In 1958 he made calls on radio Oslo for the abandonment of nuclear tests and the production of atomic bombs.
He passed away in 1965 but his spirit continues to day in enduring ethical thought and work.
Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of his way, but must accept his lot calmly if they roll a few more upon it.
The most valuable knowledge we can have is how to deal with disappointments
Religion & Philosophy
Any religion or philosophy which is not based upon a respect for life is not a true religion or philosophy
It is good to maintain life and further life, it is bad to destroy life. And this ethic, profound, universal has the significance of a religion. It is religion.
When we observe contemporary society one thing strikes us. We debate but make no progress. Why? Because as people we do not trust one another.
Because I have confidence in the power of truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind.
Nature and the Environment
Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world any more. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf.
The deeper we look into nature the more profoundly we know that it is sacred and we are united to this life.
The effect of his writings on religious and secular communities.
His quest for truth and the spirit of “liberty” as he put it at times led him to conclusions on biblical interpretation at variance to accepted orthodoxy.Indeed they cost him some considerable hardship with the Parisian Missionary Society for his strict instructions as a Jungle Doctor was to refrain from any form of religious discourse with the locals for fear he might introduce them to some doctrinal errors.
However at the insistence of the missionaries at Lambarene the Parisian Missionary Society relented on their embargo as the realisation slowly sunk in that his views in no way contradicted the simple gospel of salvation understandable to the local inhabitants.
His attitude to African culture was not to try and change their way of life to ours but to serve their physical and spiritual needs. His approach was the forerunner to to-days generally accepted missionary objectives seeking to include cultural aspects and tradition within worship and Christian life practices.
His life as a devout Christian had a profound effect on the Christian community at large as although the shadow of sacrifice hung over his life he was able to “find his life.”Whosoever loses his life for my sake shall find it”.
When he left for Africa he was prepared to make 3 sacrifices.
To lose his financial independence and become reliant for the rest of his life on donations from friends.
Discontinue his career as Concert artist.
Renounce academic teaching and lecturing activities.
However just as Abraham was spared his sacrifice Schweitzer to his great joy found himself in the same position.
The Paris Bach Society donated a piano with organ pedals specially adapted to the tropics. He was able to return (between long intervals in Africa) to Europe as an esteemed professional as his performances continued to grow in popularity.
He was only totally reliant on the financial help of others for a short period as his publications and acclaimed recitals soon made him financially independent.
He was also highly acclaimed and sought after as a Lecturer in Europe and in the leading universities in the USA.
His reverence for life principle in my opinion had the greatest impact on the general community that conSchweitzer -day under the Albert Shweitzer Foundation supporting ethically based aid and educational projects.
His work is of appeal to any group that has a common interest in the general wellbeing of peoples around the world.
However in the earlier post 2nd World War period his thoughts were of great appeal to a society ravaged by war and mindful of the need to establish a new “world order” to prevent a recurrence of past atrocities.
Invitations flowed to him to give lectures abroad from world-renowned academic, ecclesiastical and musical bodies. His view were eagerly sought after and at times he must have felt some satisfaction as it is recorded “He dashed off a letter to John F Kennedy congratulating him on his recent peace initiatives”.
His enduring legacy of thought contained within his writings on “Reverence for Life” provides a “Bridge over troubled waters” for to-days contemporary society.
As humanity struggles in a sea of bewildering change I am suggesting his principle will provide a safe passage through to what might otherwise seem intractable differences.
I would like you to consider his principle very briefly as applying to 3 key areas.: The envriroment, Ethics & Religion and Economic Development in the 3rd world.
The ethical consideration as to ultimate sustainablity can have no better focus than that alinged to the "Reverence for Life" principle. It blends in with concerns over “Mother Earth” and her ultimate sustainability in the face of depletion, waste and pollution attributable to mankind.
The missing link is the principle that establishes our conscious “will to live” that affirms our relationship with the world but requires us to create values that in turn generate outcomes sustainable to all life.
Ethics and Religion
Human Society can decay under the weight of a religion that renounces any ethical direction. I believe this is true to day.
By way of example this is true of thought that teaches the only sensible line of conduct for a man is to withdraw entirely unto himself and to concern himself solely with the deepening of his inner life. He has nothing to do with what may become of human society and of mankind. I see a leaning towards this view in fundalmentalism sweeping the world within the Christian religion whose collective thoughts turn inward and away from any value system that might otherwise connect us to the world around us.
Schweitzer contends that the essence of religion is the "Sermon on the Mount” as a charter for liberal Christianity.
Development in the 3rd world.
Although we are witnesses to the continued demonstrations against “globalisation” in the world to day in fact the poorer nations are not as concerned and seek out foreign investment as a passport for future good health.
Indeed if we ignore the aspects of sub standard conditions and unbridled depletion of resources such investments does provide benefits. What then is the answer to the current dire position of such countries?
Governance in these countries is devoid of a strong ethical base and current corruption and continued conflicts (civil wars) reduce available resources in an ever-dwindling share to the majority of the unfortunate inhabitants.
Wherein lays our hope?
European company heads have formed ethical values within their charters restricting operations to sustainable developments and providing minimum labour conditions (independent of country requirements) worldwide. Sadly North American companies have resisted so far.
Aid Agencies are targeting funding to allow communities to develop their own business thus eliminating what amounts to slavery for many. Education programs must include aspects on the desirability of ethically based societies.
The ethical basis contained within the "reverence for Life " principle is then the essence of the way forwards as the global village becomes more and more interwoven. This is essential if globalisation is to become civilised and deliver benefits in a uniform manner to all mankind.
I hope I have demonstrated to you the solution to the above problems is an application of the reverence for life” principle that binds us in a responsible way to all humanity and the world around us.
In fact it is unquestionably a Grand Unifying Theory for Humanity” .
Whether you agree or not to rename his principle the “Grand Unifying Theory for Humanity” I hope my research stimulates much thought.
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